Cost of making others ‘Happy’ is worth it

February 9, 2017|

The spirit of Wier/Stewart graphic designer Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman Jr. can best be described as a 6-year-old boy charging off of the school bus the day before Christmas break— full of sugar and excited about everything.

“And he’s always like that,” co-worker Amanda Ferguson said.

One of the rare times Zimmerman wasn’t a big ball of yellow sunshine was when he shared his story at TedX Augusta in 2014. He told with the crowd about his journey from happy, talented child to an adult who suffered a tremendous loss when his partner suddenly passed away.

Zimmerman talked about retreating into his art, often at Metro Coffeehouse and Pub downtown. He drew robots to expose raw, human emotion. From those drawings came the Happy robot, a simple black, boxy robot with a bright yellow background, its head turned to the side and a peculiar smile on its face.

“I wanted it to look like a graphic designer didn’t do it,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman began distributing the Happy robot on posters and stickers. The response was enormous. Before long, he began asking people to submit self-addressed stamped envelopes if they wanted to place an order for stickers. The result was better than Zimmerman could have hoped for.

“I remember when he used to get one box [of stickers] per year, and now he gets two or three a week,” friend and fellow artist Jason Craig said.

Filmmaker Michael Patrick McKinley took notice of Zimmerman’s story while attending the TedX event and decided to take it to a wider audience by producing a film called Happy: A Small Film with a Big Smile. McKinley created the documentary, better known as Happy, with footage from downtown Augusta and interviews with Zimmerman’s friends and family in the Garden City. The world premiere for Happy was held at the Imperial Theater in July 2016.

In addition to a great response locally, Happy has been viewed at multiple film festivals from California to New York and will be shown at the International Filmmaker Festival of Word Cinema in London in February.

The stickers have since been known to be floating around multiple continents, with people tagging Zimmerman in social media posts when they see or post a Happy sticker overseas.

Four years after first drawing the Happy robot, Zimmerman said he still gets giddy about the project.

“If you love what you’re doing, it will show,” he said. “I am very fortunate to do what I do.”

Zimmerman has grown beyond just doing Happy stickers to creating various versions of his boxy friend. His Hanukkah sticker was spotted in New York City, as was a sticker depicting his favorite holiday, Christmas. After the death of David Bowie in January 2016, Zimmerman created Inspire buttons — the same Happy robot in a different color and text.

His most recent idea came to him over a year ago but cut too close to Martin Luther King Jr. Day to launch at the time. His latest endeavor, Dream stickers, are in honor of the late civil rights leader and are meant to remind others to dream. Printed on Willy Wonka-style gold paper, they are eye-catching and heart-grabbing.

Zimmerman admitted that his is the worst business model, paying out of his own pocket to create stickers, buttons, posters and billboards, but to see the smile on people’s faces as he hands them a Happy sticker makes it worth the cost. He can often be seen leaving his stickers around town or handing them to cashiers at the grocery store or parents in car line at local schools. They serve as calling cards to the public, reminding them to stay happy.

While telling his story to Buzz on Biz, Zimmerman referred to a quote by Winston Churchill: “If you feel like you’re going through hell, keep going.” Zimmerman said he doesn’t believe in burying feelings and “pretending everything is OK.” What he does believe in is perseverance.

Some of Zimmerman’s work is currently available at the Jessye Norman School for the Arts in his latest art show, “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines.” The free show will be available Wednesday to Friday from noon to 3 p.m. and Saturdays by appointment through Feb. 11.

Many residents don’t realize that they see Zimmerman’s nonrobot work every day. One of his graphic design projects with Wier/Stewart is the new Augusta University logo.

For more information on the Happy documentary, visit happydocmovie.com. For more information on Zimmerman, visit makemyporkchop.com.

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